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Kicked around: Inside football's loneliest position.
Cundiff told Zauner that he needed another pair of eyes to study his form.
"Billy's swing was off -- I could see that in a hurry during our lesson," Zauner said. Cundiff's biggest flaw was his "crunching," said Zauner, who demonstrated, looking like a man doing a sit-up. "At impact with the ball, Billy was keeping his head too much down and back. It had him bending and crunching his body a lot, which made him push the ball to the right. Then, when he tried compensating, he hooked the ball badly to the left. We worked to get him to ... develop a nice relaxed upright torso. It made him straighter on the target line."
But Zauner's most important contribution to Cundiff's career came at the end of their two lessons together. Zauner suggested that Cundiff join about 30 other kickers at his March 2009 free-agent kicking combine. Scouts from 26 NFL teams would be present, as well as others from football's minor leagues, the lower-profile, unglamorous United Football League and the Canadian Football League.
Cundiff resisted. "They already know who I am," he said.
A blunt man, Zauner replied, "People aren't beating down your door, Billy."
After his agent pushed, Cundiff relented. He performed well at the combine. Five months later, during the 2009 preseason, the Detroit Lions called, and Cundiff briefly filled in for their hurt place kicker, Jason Hanson. Cut upon Hanson's return, Cundiff was off to Cleveland to temporarily replace the Browns' injured veteran, Phil Dawson. His short, successful stint in Cleveland earned him a call from Ravens officials, who, discouraged by the struggles of the team's new place kicker, Steve Hauschka, soon signed him.
In hopes of enhancing his concentration and confidence under pressure, Cundiff had long before turned for help to a sports psychologist. "He works with a lot of military guys," Cundiff says. "Special Forces types. It's an approach that gets away from that California hot tub stuff. ... I think it's done quite a bit for me. ... You look for everything you can do, every edge."
Joining the Ravens last season during week 11 of a 16-game NFL schedule, Cundiff made 12 of 17 field goal attempts for the team, just over 70 percent, with his longest field goal coming from 46 yards. The stats were unremarkable, but in November he made the most important kick he had attempted in four years: a short game-winning field goal in overtime against the Ravens' tough divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nicole was exultant, but Cundiff knew better than to celebrate. "Let's be honest," he says. "I needed to make that kick just to stay on the team."
Gary Zauner exits his house in a Phoenix suburb, on his way to a kicking lesson. He glances at a few snake skins that have been shed in his garden, then wheels around, having caught a glimpse of something moving. A skipping roadrunner, as cute as its namesake cartoon character, scurries across his driveway, disappearing behind a cactus. "You know what those cute things do?" he says. "They take that beak of theirs, ram it right down on a rattlesnake's head, knock it out and then eat it. Cute has nothin' to do with it. They're tough. ... Dominance. Dominance wins. It's tough out there. My guys have to see that, too. Only some will make it."
At 60, Zauner is proudly old school when it comes to attitude and discipline. If a student misses a series of kicks, the last thing he wants to hear from the guy is that he's just having a bad day. "A bad day? You can afford a bad kick, but you can't afford a bad day," he says. "You have a bad day, and you'll never get a job." He doesn't want to see someone going through the motions at one of his lessons, either. He has his lines ready, the way other people carry around canisters of Mace. "You know what, man? Practice ... doesn't ... make ... perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." He regularly points at the half-dozen or so footballs that, having been kicked down the field, now need to be retrieved. "Go get the balls," he tells his students cheerfully.
For this, along with two days of lessons and videotape reviews of their performances, the dreamers pay him $1,200.
And it has been worth it, in many cases. Some of the game's most gifted young kickers have come through these doors. Just the week before, in early October, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Josh Scobee, who to that point in the season had not missed a kick, publicly praised Zauner for helping to refine his kicking stroke. The Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski sought Zauner out two years ago, after which, coincidence or not, his accuracy rate soared again, leading later to a $16 million contract.
It's a long ways from the offseason camps that Zauner helped run in his native Wisconsin during the 1970s, when he would join forces with a couple of established NFL kickers whose names lured young starry-eyed campers. Amazed and amused, he watched the extraordinary Stenerud struggle to explain to kids how he did what he did. Zauner tells the story while imitating Stenerud's Norwegian accent. "Stenerud would shrug," Zauner remembers, "and look around at these kids and say, 'I take two or three steps this way, and I take one step this way, and I just kick the ball.' That really hit me. It made me realize a lot of good athletes can do it, but they can't explain it, not at all. They do it completely by feel. ... I thought, There's a need for somebody to really teach this. And so I studied and broke it down."
On this day, Zauner's student is 25-year-old Clint Stitser, once regarded as a prodigy -- a high-school All-American kicker from Reno and next a star kicker at Fresno State. But Stitser hasn't made a professional team. After two years out of football, he attended Zauner's free agent combine last March, performing impressively enough to win an invitation from the Jets to attend one of their preseason camps. He had a bad first day there and was soon on a plane back to Nevada. Late in the preseason, he kicked in a couple of games for the Seattle Seahawks before being released.
Stitser has told Zauner that he would be willing to kick anywhere for the time being, including in the Canadian Football League or the United Football League, and Zauner has tried to get a read on the job market for him. When a CFL coach called Zauner for recommendations, Zauner mentioned Stitser. The coach responded that somebody connected with the Jets had told him that Stitser hadn't fared well at their camp. Zauner called Stitser and said, "Clint, when that kind of rumor starts going around, that's not good.' "
"I just had a bad day with the Jets," Stitser protested.
"Clint, you know how I feel about a bad day," Zauner replied. "What have I said? You can't afford a bad day."
Later, he meets Stitser at a high school field, and they get to work, zeroing in on Zauner's gospel. "What I want you to do is not keep your eyes down and back as you come through the ball," he tells the right-footed Stitser. "I want you to let your eyes follow the ball in the air as you kick it. I want you to see and feel the kick, but let your eyes follow the ball and feel the skip of your [left] plant leg as you kick and move forward."
For many athletes, who have been told all their lives to keep your eye on the ball, the advice is counterintuitive.
"A lot of coaches know nothing about kicking," Zauner says. "They don't know. It takes time to know. It's not like I pulled this stuff out of my butt."
Stitser is a quick learner. He begins by kicking 25-yard field goals, chip shots that he booms between and over the goal posts, over the end zone, over the green field, and over a running track in the distance. The balls carom off a fence.
Zauner moves the balls beyond 40 and then 50 yards, all the while delivering his mantra: "That's it. Feel the kick, eyes follow the ball, feel the skip, walk forward, grab a ball. Do it again."
At the end of the workout, instructor and student review the videotape of Stitser's performance. After Stitser leaves, Zauner says he has hope: "Clint has a chance to be a good steady kicker. You need to be steady. Steadiness: That's more important than distance. I told Billy the same thing."
Zauner is enormously happy for Billy Cundiff, but still, he says, Cundiff has to be careful. "He works very, very hard, but Billy can be streaky," he says. "It can turn pretty quickly, and it can be hard to figure out then. This is not like some perfect science. That ball sometimes does funny things."
As Game 10 ended for the Ravens, Cundiff's 17 field goals placed him a highly respectable ninth in the NFL in that category, and his field goal percentage stood at 85 percent, well above his lifetime average. He was showered with compliments from Ravens officials, including special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who declared, "He has given us exactly what we had hoped for."
"Exactly what we had hoped for" did not necessarily mean an extension on his one-year contract of about $1.2 million. The Ravens would still need to see more.
What had made Ravens' coaches happiest about Cundiff's performance were his kickoffs. His 29 unreturnable touchbacks at that point led the league. His average kickoff of 72 yards -- which translated to a ball landing two yards deep in the end zone -- bested the average of the next closest NFL kicker by about three yards. "That makes it so tough for opposing kick returners," said Ravens kicking coach Randy Brown. "Our opponents start deeper in their own end. So Billy really is a defensive weapon, too."
Beaming with confidence, Cundiff says, "Every time I go out there now, I'm feeling good."
In a tight game at home against the Browns, Cundiff came on the field to attempt a 51-yarder, a distance that he knew some observers would view as a test of his ability to make a long kick. A breeze required extra calculations that day. With the wind blowing left to right across the goalposts, Cundiff decided to aim for the farthest left quadrant between the goalposts, quite close to the left goalpost. If the wind pushed the ball right, as he expected, the kick would end up straight down the middle.
He took a last look at the flags. Still swirling left to right. Ready.
When the ball left his foot, it felt good. A kick that felt so good was almost always a made kick. But in the next instant, Cundiff saw something that struck him as extraordinary. He had hit the ball so hard, so pure, that it was fighting off the wind, an oblong missile boring in on that left quadrant. "I thought, It's not supposed to do that, not with that wind," he recalls. The ball hit the left goalpost. No good. "You have strange kicks that you just can't explain sometimes," he says. "Things like that just happen."
Two Sundays later, sitting in the stands with their infant son at the Broncos game, Nicole Cundiff feels the uncertainty pressing down on her. Other spectators offer congratulations on her husband's earlier field goal. But that kick is already long behind her. Her neck perpetually craning, she braces herself for the moment when he will need to jog out and prove himself worthy yet again.
"It's always about the next kick."
Michael Leahy is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.